HOOD RIVER — In the past decade, the  the City of Hood River, located attractively between the lush Columbia River Gorge and the Cascade Mountains recreation areas, has seen its residential home prices skyrocket, pricing middle income locals out of the market. To encourage developers to build smaller and more affordable houses, the Hood River City Council March 29 discussed revision to its ordinance and directed city staff to prepare the document for a first reading April 12.

If the council approves changes to the ordinance after the second reading, it will wrap up months of building code deliberations and 250 pages of public testimony. The new code will go into effect 30 days after the second reading is approved. The date of the second reading will be set after the first reading April 12. The council may allow additional public input at that meeting.

Although new rules aim at encouraging developers to fill in city lots with smaller and less expensive housing for middle income locals, there’s no guarantee builders will jump at the chance, or that locals will buy the homes, councilors pointed out. However, if new rules are approved, middle home development could begin as early as this summer, said City Planning Director Dustin Nilsen.

“The readiness of developers to act on the new legislation will really be the determining factor on whether building could begin in the summer,” said Nilsen.

Currently, average home sales in the 97031 zip code exceed $500,000. Because Hood River is a seller’s market — there are more buyers than sellers — most homes sell for more than the listing price, according to Realtor.com, an industry market-watch site.

Using data provided by its planning department, March 29 the council members worked to address concerns raised by public testimony in March. Council members said they hope building code changes will make more efficient use of urban residential land by supporting development of diverse and creative housing types compatible with existing neighborhoods, providing opportunities for smaller dwelling units within existing neighborhoods, and increasing opportunities for home ownership.

If they build them, who will come? Among public testimony in the past few months were worries that less expensive housing in desirable Hood River will attract non-locals looking for a second home, or current owners looking to build more short-term vacation rentals. Realtors in addition testified that building codes, even if they inspire more building, may not drive prices down.

Aiming to keep the code flexible enough to attract building while maintaining the integrity of neighborhoods, council made the following revisions to earlier code changes. The latest proposed changes were not unanimous, but a majority of the council approved them in each case:

Small home developments encouraged — New codes set the size of middle-income developments at no more than six units on 15,000 square feet in the residential area. Those developments can be mixed duplexes and single homes, with additional allowances if the units are 800 square feet or smaller. Those allowances will be included in the April 12 reading.

Short-term rental codes clarified — Currently, the city grants short-term (vacation) rental licenses in the Residential zone only to owners of their primary residence. The same rules will apply for new middle-income housing in residential zones. However, when the new ordinance is approved, those same rules will apply to the C-1 or commercial zone. Currently, the primary residence requirement does not apply in the C-1 zone. New rules are intended to limit or prohibit issuance of short-term rental licenses to owners of new middle housing dwellings.

Devil in the details — Where most councils found disagreement were in the details — from porch roof size to parking configuration — which aimed at attractive, yet neighborly, construction. All agreed that clarity and flexibility in the code will be most attractive to developers, but some disagreed on what was, or was not, clear and flexible.

Beginning of the beginning — Although the changes to the ordinance will be read and possibly approved in April, the new codes can be adjusted in the future, based on results, councilors pointed out. Councilor Erick Haynie suggested a periodic review be a part of the updated ordinance, but the rest of the council suggested instead that reports come back to the council regularly, outside of ordinance requirements. Haynie had also asked for a longer evaluation period, but the suggestion failed to earn support. With a 6-1 vote, Haynie dissenting, the council directed Nilsen to update the document for the first reading of the ordinance.

Modifications to the ordinance may be available to the public before the 5:30 p.m. April 12 meeting. The date of the final reading will be set at that meeting. Documents related to the ordinance, including minutes and public testimony, are online at cityofhoodriver.gov/administration/meetings. Summaries have been in past issues of the Columbia Gorge News.